Cornell University’s Ithaca campus. (Courtesy of Cornell University Photography )

We in higher education have been on the defensive lately, amid persistent and legitimate concerns about the rising cost of college education, its purpose and its value. In response, we cite compelling data on the higher wages of college graduates compared to those without degrees, and we describe the intangible values of a liberal arts education that enhance an individual’s joy in life and ability to fulfill the demands of citizenship.

To move this conversation forward, it is time to look at higher education through a different lens – one framed by the inseparable qualities of freedom and responsibility.

Elizabeth Garrett, president of Cornell University (photo courtesy of Cornell University) Elizabeth Garrett, president of Cornell University (Photo by Robert Barker for Cornell photography)

Major research universities operate and thrive in an environment of extraordinary freedom — freedom that is essential to our mission to teach critical thinking and to advance knowledge in all the disciplines. Faculty are largely free to determine what we teach, what research we prioritize, what kinds of opportunities we offer our students.

This is a freedom made possible, in part, by the general public.

Taxpayers help to fund us through state appropriations and government grants and, less directly, through financial aid to low-income students and the tax deduction that encourages philanthropy. You, the public, have entrusted us with your tax dollars, the tuition you pay and, most importantly, your children.

Carl Becker, a brilliant historian who came to teach at Cornell in 1917, linked academic freedom with a related responsibility, extending far beyond the individual professor. Universities, Becker wrote, “are social institutions, and should perform a social service.” Otherwise, there was “no reason for the existence of Cornell, or of any university, or for maintaining the freedom of learning and teaching which they insist upon.”

Today’s research universities must focus even more intently on our responsibilities to our faculty, our students, and the public. We must provide our faculty with an environment that encourages freedom of inquiry and thought, as well as with material support. We must nurture our junior faculty and graduate students, developing their ability to make discoveries, expand knowledge and effectively impart what they know. All faculty must be able to pursue their best work – in teaching and research – unhampered by politics or prejudice.

We must provide our students with an education that includes not only specific facts and skills but also the tools to keep on learning and adapting long after their time with us on campus has passed. We need to teach reasoning and communication skills in an environment that includes people of wide-ranging values, lifestyles, heritage and opinions. We aim to teach them to argue forcefully but with civility for what they believe and can support with reason.

Here, in an environment where it is safer to fall short of ambitious goals than will be the case later in their lives, we must encourage them to explore and discover, take informed risks, open themselves to the new. We urge them to pick themselves up from failure and move on, learning successful strategies along the way and fostering essential traits of bravery, grace, empathy and humility.

This particular responsibility is one we owe to the public as well as to individual students. There is no better return we could offer the society that honors us with its investment and trust than to send into the world, year after year, graduates who will be active, informed and thoughtful citizens, productive workers and innovative thinkers, and persons of humane instincts, committed to the common good.

Our responsibility to the public also includes pushing the frontiers of research, through work with direct applications to real-world problems and through pure discovery for its own sake. Some discovery-driven research might seem at first to have no practical application — but later can prove enormously valuable. In 1917, when Albert Einstein wrote a paper on the quantum theory of radiation, who would have thought that its findings, many decades later, would lead to the invention and development of the laser?

Today, universities conduct more than half the nation’s basic research. Such research continues despite an environment of tight federal funding for basic research and private industry being less willing or able to invest in research without an immediate payoff. We must continue to fuel this vital work, advocate for substantial public and philanthropic support and continue our quest for greater knowledge that can improve well-being.

In exchange for the freedom entrusted to us, these are the responsibilities to which research universities must be dedicated. We in higher education will continue to strive to live up to them.

Elizabeth Garrett is the 13th president of Cornell University, an Ivy League school in Ithaca, N.Y. She began as Cornell’s president on July 1, after serving as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Southern California.

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